Winter: Why EPL must make example of Man City

Manchester City are not taking the Premier League’s allegations lightly, but the latest Financial Fair Play saga emphasises the need for an independent regulator, writes HENRY WINTER.

Once more unto the breaches, m’learned friends. Time to lawyer up again. Manchester City’s spiky 79-word retort to the Premier League allegations over financial irregularities is fighting talk cloaked in legalese. This case will run and run and the ramifications will be far and wide.

The battle lines are drawn between City and the Premier League in one of the most significant disputes in recent footballing history. The two guarantees are that the process will not be short and that the lawyers will not go short.

City’s lawyers saw off UEFA over similar claims and now hope to dismiss the Premier League, even if there is no safety net of alleged offences being time-barred or the possibility of running to the Court of Arbitration for Sport for help.

But this development, however ridiculously long it has taken, is pretty seismic. If City are found guilty, and their lawyers fail in the inevitable appeal, one of the country’s most famous, historic clubs deserve to face a substantial points deduction – at the very least.

The sanction of relegation will also come under consideration: they could drop down the divisions, forced to do a Rangers (for different reasons). It would be quite a sight as Erling Haaland lays waste to League One defences. In reality, in a world of lawyers, City may fear only a delayed points deduction, a fine meaningless for billionaires and a momentary transfer embargo. Except City hope to win.

The Premier League claims City broke Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules more than 100 times over nine years. These are not allegations of a brief lapse, a moment of weakness. These are allegations of wrongdoing on an industrial scale, with shadow contracts, inflated sponsorship deals and obfuscation during the investigation. These claims relate to manager and player remuneration and a failure to comply with UEFA FFP and Premier League rules on profitability and sustainability, let alone the subsequent failure to assist the authorities with their inquiries. It’s quite the charge sheet.

If proved, City will have displayed a serial contempt for the Premier League, its regulations and fellow members. If proved, the nature of any sanction should reflect the number of breaches confirmed. If proved, the ensuing punishment should be designed to deter others who believe they can copy the City playbook.

If proved, it requires the caveat that the Premier League goes after other clubs who stray from the rule book. The scales of justice must weigh all misdeeds equally. City, their lawyers, cheerleaders and supporters may doubt that even-handedness exists but fair-mindedness must be applied.

There are those around the Premier League table who play by the rules and are pleased, relieved and delighted to see the organisation policing the game in this way. Some around the table recall and privately recite Arsene Wenger’s famous line about “financial doping”. It pollutes the game. It skews competition, and the great joy of the Premier League, the reason why it is the world’s most popular sporting event, is this sense of challenge from teams one to 20. On any given day.

Some clubs balance the books, develop homegrown youngsters, persuade overseas talent to sign through the promise of good coaching and playing opportunities, not through financial lure. Such an approach needs protecting.

New forces on the Premier League board understand they have a fiduciary and reputational responsibility to enforce the rules. Critics who derided an organisation as incapable of organising the proverbial piss-up in a brewery will note wryly the appointment of the chief executive of Whitbread plc, Alison Brittain, as chair. Brittain was hired last summer, started a month ago, and now comes this challenge to City. Coincidence? Possibly. But there is a new momentum.

City have a fight on their hands but they’re confident of being cleared, as their statement signals. In a spiky final flourish, City’s lawyers harrumph that “we look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all”. In other words, bring it on.

They’ll soon have KCs stepping into the thick of it. City’s lawyers are all over this. It has to be lawyers, certainly non-football types, dictating a statement referring to the “EPL”. Know the game, please. Know your fans, and respect them.

In my experience, the City faithful, the real ones, home and away, know the difference in meaning between the Premier League and the EPL. They’re proper, committed supporters, followers through thick and thin, through Madrid and Macclesfield. Good fans will suffer here – remember that.

So whatever you think of City’s alleged excesses or their battalion of briefs, balance is required. City deserve a fair hearing. The bloodlust of 19 other clubs’ fans coursing through social media, chorusing “going down”, has to be removed from the commission’s considerations.

If City are found guilty, rival clubs will want the record books updated and trophies reallocated, and may desire financial recompense for missing out on European competition. Could individual managers such as Brendan Rodgers, who went so close to glory with Liverpool in 2013-14, desire a recount? Where there’s a blame, there’s a claim, right? But City were not responsible for Steven Gerrard’s costly slip against Chelsea or “Crystanbul” – Liverpool’s infamous draw at Selhurst Park brought about by defensive errors – in two of the final three games. How to prove City’s culpability there? Common sense needs applying.

And there is some about. The chair of the Premier League’s judicial panel, Murray Rosen KC, is one of the country’s finest legal minds, whether arbitrating or mediating. City fans seize on the fact that Rosen is a member at Arsenal but that simply betrays the shallow, tribal thought process in football. Lawyers are disconnected from emotion in the experience of those who mix with them.

Rosen brings a forensic, considered take to the circus of football. He’s acted for Robbie Williams, The Who and Duran Duran, collects Surrealist art and has arbitrated in cases over forged stamps, so it’s fair to say Rosen has seen a bit of life, he’s got some perspective, he can be trusted.

Just as Brittain brings more intelligence and perspective to the board, so does Rosen to the judicial chamber. Football needs bright sparks like Brittain and Rosen to bring some order to the playground.

Such refined intellects (a mix of Cambridge and the Courtauld) should still reconsider the Premier League’s regulations and clubs’ rules of engagement. They have to ensure that such a process as the City case, right or wrong, does not take a decade and a half from first alleged offence to conclusion. The only winners then would be the lawyers. The only loser would be football.

The saga serves to highlight why an independent regulator is required, a body with legislative powers to track clubs’ spending and get them to open up their books. Not in the future. Now. Not waiting for Der Spiegel and Wiki Leaks. Jump in, and call people out. The regulator can do that.

The Premier League has struggled to cope with City’s delaying tactics, alleged tactical fouling outside the witness box. The length of time involved is damaging to the league, to English football, and simply stirs toxicity between fans. It’s VAR with a slow-moving gavel, taking too looking to come up with a judgment. So let the course of judgment run true. And then bring some swifter, stronger governance to the English game with a regulator.

– The Times

Originally published as Henry Winter: If Manchester City are guilty, the league must make an example of them

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